ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A painful year has passed since a lost boy in Labrador walked through blowing snow across the sea ice outside Makkovik, hanging on for 19 freezing kilometres for help that never came.
Fourteen-year-old Burton Winters stopped at that point and laid down.
The discovery of his body on Feb. 1, three days after he disappeared while snowmobiling, threw his tiny Inuit community into grieving followed by questions about why he died.
Vigils to mark his death and celebrate his life are being held around Newfoundland and Labrador this week as those questions linger.
“We’ll always wonder: had there been immediate involvement from search and rescue helicopters or aircraft with the right equipment, could it have saved Burton?” said Randy Edmunds, a family friend and Liberal provincial politician.
“There’s a whole chain of small things that led up to a disaster.”
Edmunds, who helped with the search and was in the civilian chopper that ultimately found the boy’s body, said the Winters family still wants a public inquiry.
“We’d like to change what went wrong with protocol and to fix it so another family does not have to go through this.”
Two Griffon helicopters were both briefly out of commission for maintenance or repairs when the military was first asked to help in the search on Jan. 30, the morning after he went missing. The military later said bad weather was also a factor and that a Cormorant helicopter wasn’t dispatched because it might have been needed for a marine rescue.
A Griffon and an Aurora plane arrived on Jan. 31 after local searchers made a second call to the military for help.
There followed months of finger pointing as provincial and federal officials questioned each other’s responses while calls for a public inquiry went unanswered.
The military announced last April the return of a third Griffon helicopter to the fleet at 5 Wing Goose Bay by way of boosting search and rescue air support, albeit with secondary assets. It also changed response protocols to ensure military officials actively check with provincial authorities in ongoing searches to offer assistance.
And the provincial government equipped communities, including Makkovik, with thermal imaging cameras to help detect heat during searches.
Provincial Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien said his heart goes out to the Winters family. But he sees no need for a more formal probe into how the search for Burton was handled.
“We had an evaluation of the event,” he said in an interview. “The people on the ground, the RCMP, made decisions based on a lot of factors.”
Air coverage requested of the province the day after Burton disappeared was in the air around 10 a.m. as soon as the weather allowed, O’Brien said.
“They were provided that service and it wasn’t successful.”
Every search is different and not every one ends happily, he added.
Barry Andersen, Burton’s cousin, is Makkovik’s community constable and its ground search co-ordinator. He had spent that last weekend with the boy as part of a Junior Canadian Rangers training event in survival and snowmobiling skills.
Burton was last seen that Sunday afternoon at around 1:30 p.m. as he dropped off his young cousin at his grandmother’s house. He was reported missing later that evening at about 7 p.m.
Andersen recalled how difficult it was to search with little information, no direction of travel and snow squalls limiting visibility in -10 C conditions.
“It was very, very frustrating for the first day and a half. We had absolutely no idea where he might have went.
“There’s no rational reason why someone could have travelled out on that thin ice, that far,” he said. “Nobody on the search team, nobody in the community to this day has come to me and said: ‘Barry, you should have been looking out to sea or in an easterly direction.’
“We all thought that he would have been around town or maybe a kilometre or so inland from here, where the woods are. But out there, there was absolutely no shelter whatsoever.”
Kids in Newfoundland and Labrador can snowmobile in open country after the age of 13, Andersen said. Burton had been given a second-hand machine, in excellent condition, less than two months before his death.
It’s speculation as to whether he took a wrong turn in blinding snow or maybe ventured too far out and got stuck in the ice.
All anyone can do now is cherish his memory and try to learn from his death, Edmunds said.
“This was a quiet, shy, comical young fellow, just getting to the age where he was getting involved in the community and events. He was someone that always had a smile, someone that everybody liked.
“The overall issue of what triggers a search and rescue response — it has to be revisited, certainly. And I think this would come out in an investigation.”